Rich Stoehr's Reviews > Blindness

Blindness by José Saramago
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May 10, 10

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"Blindness was spreading, not like a sudden tide flooding everything and carrying all before it, but like an insidious infiltration of a thousand and one turbulent rivulets which, having slowly drenched the earth, suddenly submerge it completely." - from "Blindness" by José Saramago

Look around you for a moment, take in your surroundings. Now imagine that you cannot see these words you're reading, or the page in front of you, or the people near you. Imagine, instead, that your vision has been blasted away by a field of white, as if your eyes had been immersed in a milky sea. Imagine further that the people around you, everyone else, is experiencing the same thing; their sight stripped away and replaced with only white. What would you do? How would your perceptions change? What would happen to the world around you if this came to pass?

This is the world of "Blindness," José Saramago's Nobel Prize-winning novel. It begins with one man, sitting in his car, stopped at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, inexplicably, he goes blind. One moment he can see, the next, he sees only white. Over the course of the next day, everyone he comes in contact with -- his wife, his eye doctor, the other patients in the waiting room, the man who helped him home (and later stole his car) -- all go blind. Then the people they contact go blind, and so it spreads, and spreads, and spreads. Despite attempts by the government to contain the blind, the blindness spreads like wildfire throughout the nameless country.

In some ways, "Blindness" reminded me of the first part of Stephen King's "The Stand." In King's book, it is a deadly 'superflu' which spreads rapidly across the world, and we see some of the same traits in King's characters that we do in "Blindness," the same base pettiness in some and the same selflessness in others. However, where King chose to tell a grand tale of Armageddon and good versus evil, Saramago took a very different route, telling a very personal, intimate story of only a few of those afflicted with the "white blindness." And of course there is a dramatic difference in writing style between King and Saramago. Suffice it to say that the similarity of situation is where the similarities between "Blindness" and "The Stand" pretty much end... but it is worth noting that people who liked "The Stand" for its premise may well enjoy "Blindness."

Pretty much anything by José Saramago is a challenging read, and "Blindness" is no exception. His writing style is distinctive for its long, meandering sentences and its eschewing of standard grammatical conventions for dialogue and paragraph divisions. As in the other two Saramago books I have read, page-long passages of dialogue appear without line breaks or quotation marks. In any other writer's hands, it would quickly become a muddle, but Saramago makes it work for him, and for the story. In fact, the writing is of such overall quality that it really heightens the enjoyment of the book, rather than detracting from it. Saramago creates passages of incomparable beauty and clever wit and inexpressable degradation in "Blindness," such that merit repeated readings, not because they aren't understood the first time, but just to fully appreciate them for what they are.

The characters in "Blindness" are unique and unforgettable. They, like the country and city they live in, go through the entire book without proper names. They are "the girl with dark glasses" and "the doctor" and "the woman on the first floor" and "the first blind man" (meaning the first man to go blind, at the beginning of the book). Somehow, the characters not having names brings them that much closer. We cannot separate then from us, because we don't have names to do it with. "Blindness" is a very personal portrait of these characters, dealing with every aspect of their lives and how they adapt to being stricken with the white blindness. From getting food to recognizing a loved one to their sex lives to what they now have to do in the bathroom, we come to know these people very well by the time "Blindness" is over. In a perfectly-maintained circle, we come to understand the larger story only through the perceptions of these few characters, and we come to understand the people in how they react to the events of the story. The events are extraordinary, but the characters experiencing them are very, very real.

When I finished "Blindness," I closed the book, put it down slowly, looked up at what was around me at that moment. It was a beautiful day. Everything looked new and perfect, like it had been there since the beginning of time and would be there until the end. The book reminded me of just how much we all come to rely on the frail apparatus by which we experience the world, these senses we have, especially sight and how important it is -- not just so we can see where we're going but so we can see the people around us, see our lover's face when we wake up and when we go to sleep, see our childrens' eyes looking at us, see a beautiful blue sky arching over clear sparkling waters. "Blindness" reminds us to look, and more than that, to see clearly all those things around us that we hold dear. For that alone, and for so much else beyond that, "Blindness" is a book to be treasured, and José Saramago is a writer to be admired.

"We were already blind the moment we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind."
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